Opinion | The (sort of) redemption of Chris Christie

Let me tell you how I first came to know Chris Christie, because I think it tells you something about why he ran for president again and why he stayed in the race as long as he did.

In 2009, when Christie first ran for governor of New Jersey, I wrote a long magazine story about his opponent, the incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine. I was about as scathing toward Christie as I’d ever been to a politician. I mocked him for the vapidity of his agenda — he had none — and for trying to be all things to all people.

About a year later, at a meeting of Republican governors in San Diego, Christie invited me for coffee. This was unusual, a political figure reaching out after being pilloried in print, and I braced for unpleasantness. But Christie quoted my harshest words back to me with a chuckle and admitted I’d had a point. He asked me to come back to New Jersey and see what he was trying to do with the state’s dysfunctional budget, and so I did.

I found something very different from the Christie I first encountered during the campaign. He seemed to be trying to reform the state by persuading the voters that the promises made by his predecessors — unlimited services and lavish public pensions — could never be realized. And he was succeeding, one high school gym at a time.

What I came to admire about Christie, then and in the years after, was his sophistication with telling a story and his enduring belief that he could bring you along to his way of thinking. Christie was always keenly aware of the image he was crafting — that of a truth-teller who never backed down from telling you what was right, politics be damned. He had a rare talent for persuasion and a towering ambition.

In 2016, though, unmoored by his defeat as a presidential candidate, Christie made a grave miscalculation. He became the first big-time Republican to throw his arms around Donald Trump. In doing so, he blew up the image he’d worked so hard to build (and had managed to salvage even after the scandal that nearly sunk his governorship). Once a Reagan-esque figure to the party’s donors and think-tank types, he was made to look like a groveling fool.

So if you want to know why Christie stuck around in New Hampshire, despite mounting evidence that he would do more good for the anti-Trump cause by stepping aside, as he did this week, then I think you have to understand why he came back in the first place. Of course Christie thought he could win the nomination this time (I’m yet to meet the candidate who doesn’t), but he also had in mind a better last act for himself.

Lashing himself to Trump changed the story arc of Christie’s once-promising career, and he’s been dead set on changing it back.

It’s an enduring question among those who have known and watched Christie over the years: Why did he do it? Privately, he had never taken Trump seriously as a candidate and, like a lot of us, he expected that the party would coalesce around someone else before the primaries. He knew Trump well and considered him uninformed and unscrupulous. Christie’s most talented and loyal aides opposed his pivot to Trump and refused to make the leap with him. So why did he offer Trump critical validation at that moment in 2016?

Christie would tell you that he thought he could help mold Trump, but I’ve always thought the answer was baser than that. After years of methodically rising to the highest levels of politics, Christie was suddenly facing an existential moment. He would soon be out of office, and his poll numbers in left-leaning New Jersey essentially ruled out any more campaigns.

Christie was nothing if not a realist, and in Trump he saw an opening. If he endorsed when it still mattered, and if Trump somehow managed to win, then Christie might end up vice president. If Trump lost, as seemed more likely, then at least Christie would have endeared himself to the ascendant anti-establishment wing of the party. It was an unusually cynical calculation for Christie — or at least unusually blatant in its cynicism.

The marriage went badly from the start. Trump rewarded Christie’s devotion by publicly treating him like an errand boy. The top job Christie wanted never materialized. About the only thing Trump really gave him was the coronavirus, which Christie said he contracted during debate prep in 2020 and which nearly killed him.

Still, Christie stood by Trump, right up until the moment on his second election night when Trump made clear he would not accept the results. This, apparently, was too much for Christie. Or perhaps it was the sudden awareness that Trump was leaving office and of no use to anyone anymore, and all Christie had achieved was to firmly link himself to one of the most ignominious periods in American history — a reality that surely hit home as he watched rioters trash the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

With stunning speed, Christie set about doing what he does best: flipping the narrative. He wrote a well-argued book denouncing Trump and his movement. He resolved to run for president again — as long as Trump was running, too, because he wanted a head-to-head matchup. He devised a campaign premised on a single idea: Another Trump term would be the death of democracy, and only Christie had the skill and temerity to expose him.

It’s exactly the campaign Christie ran, more a plea for sanity than a case for any particular agenda. Sixty years ago, in an insurgency that shaped the Republican Party for generations to come, Barry Goldwater’s campaign told skittish voters: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Christie’s pitch to Republican voters was essentially a variant: “In your heart, you know he’s wrong.” (At one point, I told Christie he should use this line. Perhaps wisely, he ignored me.)

It didn’t work. Maybe that’s because the old Republican Party really is a memory now, replaced by an amalgam of society’s darkest fears and impulses. Or maybe it’s because Christie never did manage to get his face-to-face reckoning with Trump, who has refused to debate his opponents and really doesn’t have to.

But perhaps the real problem for Christie was that this time, rather than trying to be everything to everyone as he was in that first gubernatorial bid, he ended up being nothing to anyone. Voters who harbor lingering affection for Trump, even if they’d rather not vote for him, saw Christie as a turncoat. Those who want an alternative, meanwhile, hadn’t forgotten the cringy way in which Christie helped legitimize the MAGA movement — something for which he finally managed to apologize (more or less) in an ad last week, many months too late.

The guy who made his reputation by never going halfway in on anything found himself trapped in a void of in-between-ness — too anti-Trump for the loyalists in his party and too recently pro-Trump for anyone else.

If Christie’s gambit were really all about stopping Trump, though, then you’d think he would have made some different choices in the weeks before he shuttered his campaign. It’s been obvious for several weeks that Nikki Haley — another Trump enabler-turned-critic, but one who served in the administration rather than as a courtier — stood the strongest chance of consolidating the anti-Trump vote. There was a path, it seemed, for Christie to strike the same kind of accord with her that he had with Trump. He might have joined forces with Haley, maybe even in exchange for the No. 2 slot he was denied in 2016.

In fact, things seemed to be heading that way in a recent debate, when the obnoxious Vivek Ramaswamy (the adjective seems to have appended itself to his name, like “the Honorable” or “the Right Reverend”), attacked Haley as corrupt. Christie shrewdly and fiercely rose to her defense — a signal, I thought, that maybe the pro-governing candidates onstage were inching toward an alliance.

But when Haley blew a hole in her own ship soon after, declining to mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War during an appearance in New Hampshire, Christie tore into her, saying “it never looks good when you’re trying to be something you’re not.” This drew an unusually tough rebuke from the state’s governor, Chris Sununu, who called on Christie to end his campaign. Rather than endorse Haley as he suspended his campaign, Christie managed to distance himself from her even further, when he was caught on microphone saying “she’s gonna get smoked, and you and I both know it.”

The truth is that Christie stayed in the race well after it became clear that he was undermining the party’s best chance to derail Trump. This time around, he wasn’t interested in cutting deals. He seemed interested mostly in his own legacy — hoping that, when the histories are written, we will remember him for having resisted to the end, alongside stalwarts such as Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney, rather than for having validated Trump when it mattered most.

I’m guessing this is also a story about atonement. Contrary to what his critics have said, Christie is a man who harbors deep convictions about the value of good governance and the American project. He knows he played a minor role in the political horror story that is now reaching its terrifying climax. And if he could go back to that moment in 2016, when he chose between what he knew was right and what he thought expedient, I have little doubt he’d do it differently.

Perhaps this last campaign brought Christie some small measure of redemption. Perhaps that’s all the redemption he deserves.

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